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Documentary Shines A Light On Chicago's Homeless Youth

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 21, 2014 5:00PM

Photo: ©2014 Spargel Productions and Kartemquin Films.

A valuable piece of advocacy and empathy, The Homestretch is meat-and-potatoes documentary filmmaking that will be perfectly at home when it arrives on television (ITVS is one of the production companies involved and PBS provided financial support). But aside from seeing a considerably longer cut (the broadcast version will run under an hour), the best reason to see the movie during its return engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center may be to simply give more thought to the homeless folks you pass when leaving the theater during this cold November.

Specifically, The Homestretch addresses homelessness among the young in the city of Chicago. Narrowing in on that, it focuses on those whose homelessness may not be evident, as they seem to function normally and attend school. A startling statistic near the beginning of the film informs us there are some 19,000 Chicago Public Schools system students registered as being in "temporary living situations." That term can mean anything from relying on friends and shelters to stay off the streets to getting to know the hard pavement all too well.

The movie has three compelling young subjects and each is obviously smart and full of promise. The luckiest of the three is Roque, a student separated from his family by immigration issues, who is taken in by a caring teacher who becomes a surrogate mother. The other two—teenage father and aspiring businessman/artist Anthony and the bubbly and creative Kasey—have to navigate between overcrowded shelters and community homes.

Directors Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly capture the problems and personalities of their subjects, and all have real charisma. Which suggests a questionable choice made by the filmmakers. Surely, among 19,000 homeless kids, there are plenty lacking the intelligence and likability of Roque, Anthony and Kasey. It's not that The Homestretch paints a sunny portrait of homeless youth, but despite the extreme hardships shown, it’s obvious there was an even darker and perhaps more dispiriting view avoided.

But documentaries should not be expected to act as exhaustive, encyclopedic journalism. Documentarians craft a narrative from the moments of real life they capture. Chicago’s Kartemquin Films has done a reliably fine job in that mission over its long history and this co-production continues their tradition of unobtrusive documentary storytelling. Kartemquin doesn't go for the stylized approach of Errol Morris, the sledgehammer tactics of Michael Moore, or even the more clinical, observational method of someone like Frederick Wiseman. The Kartemquin touch is populist and emotional, but with a hard spine of social inquiry.

The Homestretch doesn't have the impact of Kartemquin's best-known films, directed by Steve James: Hoop Dreams, Stevie, The Interrupters and Life Itself. Aside from James' considerable filmmaking chops, that may be simply because de Mare and Kelly cast too wide a net for a 90-minute film. We only get a fleeting glimpse of the troubled family dynamics that led its subjects to homelessness. The large percentage of gay, lesbian or transgendered youths shown in the shelters and community homes might have an obvious cause (parental disapproval), but the viewer is left to speculate on that. Even Roque's immigration issues are left rather vague.

Still, if the movie might have resonated more with either a tighter focus or a longer running time to accommodate more details, it's far from a failure. The Homestretch does manage to put you in the shoes of those walking a much tougher road than most of us travel. Hard to knock a movie that accomplishes that.

The Homestretch. Directed by Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly. 90 mins. Opens today, Nov. 21 at the Gene Siskel Film Center.